The tree is up, the cupboards groan with food, but Josie can’t bring herself to feel it. The thought of Christmas fills her with dread.
Everyone at work was full of cheer. And she joined in. She wore a reindeer jumper and helped out at the bake sale. But behind the fixed smile lay sadness. It’s three weeks to the day that she took her best friend for his final walk. Tomorrow will be the first Christmas in sixteen years without Bertie.
She’s downloaded A Wonderful Life. Of course it will make her cry, but Josie hopes it might kick-start the Christmas gene. She’ll watch it with the lights off and a box of mince pies. If she keeps the room dark, she could pretend Bertie is still here. Fast asleep in his basket that she’s not yet managed to move from in front of the fire.
The weather has been typically Christmas. Rainy and dull, but as the afternoon wore on, the sun broke through. It bathed the garden in a beautiful light. Josie glanced at Bertie’s lead, still hanging on the back of the door. Around about now, she’d rattle her keys and he’d leap from his basket to dance a jig at her feet.
She missed the walks. Almost as much as she missed Bertie. Even though Josie lived alone and didn’t hang out much with the people from work, she had dog walking friends. They’ll have noticed her absence. Did they guess that Bertie had gone?
Why shouldn’t she still go out?
Josie heads through the woods, and smiles as she pictures Bertie snuffling his way along the path. She nods hello to Schnauzer Elaine and Labrador Bill. She can’t bring herself to stop and chat, because they’ll want to know about Bertie. Up ahead, there’s someone sitting on a bench. No dog at their side. As she gets closer she realises that it’s Poodle Pete.
‘Hello lovely lady,’ he says, and shuffles over for her to sit.
Josie isn’t sure. Any minute Stinker will come rushing through the bushes, haa-haa-ing his way across the grass, chasing a squirrel. She’s not sure she can cope with pretending there’s nothing wrong.
‘Are you all sorted for Christmas Day?’ she says and he nods.
‘My Maureen has bankrupted us, and for what? It’s only a big dinner.’
They sit in silence for a while, and when there’s no sign of Stinker, she’s forced to ask.
‘Are you alone?’
He nods and Josie’s heart bursts. How could two of the loveliest boys leave this world at the same time?
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, and overwhelmed by sadness gets to her feet. ‘I best head home, it’ll be dark soon.’
‘Three girls and a boy,’ Pete says. ‘I don’t suppose you fancy seeing them?’
Stinker is the most attentive father. He fusses around Molly like he knows she’s unsure where the four little hungry balls of fluff came from.
‘They’re beautiful,’ Josie says.
‘That little black one,’ Pete says. ‘I bet he reminds you of someone.’
Of course he does, and Josie has been doing her best not to say anything. She’s only got the one picture of Bertie as a pup. He grew up so fast after he left the dog’s home.
‘We can’t keep them,’ Pete says. ‘So I suppose come the new year, it’s adoption time.’
All at once, Josie knows that she’s feeling Christmas. She looks around Pete’s front room, taking in the tree, the twinkling lights, the crackling logs on the open fire. The smell of something lovely wafting from the kitchen.
‘I could take him,’ she says, and then quickly adds. ‘That’s if you don’t mind.’
Josie smiles and sips her sherry in the flickering light of the television screen. She smiles over at Bertie’s empty basket.
‘You don’t mind, lad?’ she says.
And somewhere, far away she hears him barking.
Or maybe it was the wind.
She just can’t be sure.
‘Merry Christmas, old boy.’